A standard rule of writing states that one should refrain from using the word “I” in one’s writing. Somehow this rule seems singularly inappropriate when writing about the book Anthem. I wish to talk about my thoughts on this work. I will not abstract my ideas so that I can refer to them without referring to myself; they are my ideas, my thoughts, and my impressions. Many years ago, I read my first book by Ayn Rand, Anthem. When I decided to write an essay on Anthem, I needed to re-read it to refresh my memory. As it is a short book, I expected this to be an easy task, but I was very wrong.
When I first read Anthem, it was an easy task. I completed the book in about four hours. At the time, I was not mature enough to fully appreciate Anthem’s powerful symbolism. My attitude as I read the beginning of the book was one of indifference and confusion, maturing only later into concern and vigorous interest. This experience began a new phase in my intellectual development that soon led me to read Atlas Shrugged. I then started on Ayn Rand’s non-fictional works. My understanding of Rand’s philosophical system, however, came piece by piece.
There was no one instant of recognition, no single “aha. ” Until recently, I was not fully aware that I had been affected so deeply. My progress was step-by-step and I had never looked all the way back. As I began to read Anthem for a second time, I found myself in acute pain, even at the first paragraph. I continued to read it feeling much as a person would when touring a concentration camp, for, in effect, that was exactly what I was doing. There was not one hint of levity in my mood; I do not even recall breathing. I was truly looking all the way back.
At the end of chapter nine, when Equality 7-2521 is alone, in the most profound sense of the word, with his Golden One, she says slowly, “We are one … alone … and only … and we love you who are one … alone … and only,” I feared I could tolerate the book no longer. I had finally understood that profound sense of loneliness and despair a person can feel when they want to say “I love you,” but cannot say “I”. I could not understand how my previous reading could have seemed so easy. I proceeded, at a forced march, all the way to chapter eleven.
I had never experienced the concept of labored reading before. When I read the words, “I am,” I realized that I had become Equality 7-2521 and that his liberation was my liberation. At that instant, I first became aware of air rushing into my lungs, and I felt free. My grim task was over. I read the rest of the book in a state of heightened self-awareness. I felt intensely every move of my eyes, every shift of my hands, every thought and every word. Anthem enslaved me and then liberated me. May I never forget the difference.